Tuesday , March 18, 2014 - 3:47 PM
CORVALLIS, Ore.— With no In-N-Out double-doubles to be found in the state, Oregon State coach Mike Riley will have to come up with another incentive for the No. 8 Beavers this weekend against Utah.
Not that they need it.
The Beavers have opened 5-0 and climbed to their highest ranking since they finished the 2000 season at No. 4 after a Fiesta Bowl victory over Notre Dame.
It is a stunning turnaround for a team that went just 3-9 last season and was picked to finish last in the Pac-12 North. Instead, the Beavers are a win away from bowl eligibility at the halfway point of their season.
It’s been a season of surprises for the Beavers. Their home opener against Nicholls State was postponed until December, so no one really knew what to expect when the Beavers opened at home with then-No. 13 Wisconsin on Sept. 8. Oregon State won, 10-7.
The Beavers lost starting quarterback Sean Mannion to a left knee injury in a 19-6 victory over Washington State two weekends ago, but junior backup Cody Vaz took over and threw for 332 yards and three touchdowns in a 42-24 win last Saturday at BYU. It was Vaz’s first start since high school.
The latest surprise? Even though Mannion had surgery to repair the meniscus in his knee last week, he returned to practice Thursday and was listed as Vaz’s backup against the Utes.
Vaz, who earned Pac-12 player of the week honors following his start against the Cougars, wasn’t concerned about playing a spotlighted Saturday night game at Reser Stadium against the Utes.
"I’d much rather play in a home game than an away game, to be honest, I don’t think it adds any extra nerves," he said.
Oregon State is ranked eighth in the nation with an average of 338 yards passing per game. Brandin Cooks averages 131.8 yards receiving, also eighth nationally, while Markus Wheaton isn’t far behind with an average of 112.8 yards, 10th in the country.
On defense, the Beavers are allowing an average of just 70 yards rushing and just 18.4 points per game to opponents. Cornerback Jordan Poyer is averaging an interception per game, and has five of Oregon State’s 10 overall picks.
That doesn’t bode well for Utah freshman quarterback Travis Wilson, who passed for 220 yards in his first career start last week, a 21-14 loss to UCLA. It was the third straight loss for the Utes (2-4, 0-3).
Utah lost its first four conference games last season but went on to win its next four, starting with a 27-8 victory over Oregon State.
Wilson got the start last weekend over senior Jon Hays, who started the three games this season after Jordan Wynn suffered a career-ending shoulder injury. Hays threw for two touchdowns against the Beavers last season, the Utes’ first in the expanded Pac-12 Conference.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham says he’s sticking with Wilson for now.
"You don’t ever say forever but right now he is our guy," Whittingham said. "We are pleased with his initial performance. We don’t want him playing on eggshells. There is a fine line — we talk about being competitive and we need him to perform, but at the same time he has to know that we have confidence in him. And what we saw in that game, we have confidence in him that he will continue to improve."
On defense, Utah leads the nation with 13 forced fumbles and three fumbles returned for a touchdown. The last time the Utes returned three fumbles for TDs was the 2003 season.
Utah ranks third in the Pac-12 in total defense, allowing opponents an average of about 351 yards a game.
But Utah is struggling on offense and is last in the conference with an average of just under 303 total offensive yards per game. They’re second-to-last in rushing offense with an average of 100 yards on the ground.
Despite the stats, Whittingham believes the offense is coming together.
"We’re headed down the path that we think is best for us. Have we been productive as want to be? No, we’ve been abysmal at times. But we have to keep working and find answers," he said. "There are no moral victories but I think we’re closer than a lot of people think we are."
It has been Riley’s custom this season to treat his team to In-N-Out burgers after road wins. He said he’s been lucky that the chain’s corporate office has been very cooperative about the postgame orders for 250 double-doubles.
When they’re at Reser Stadium, the Beavers are treated to chef Raul Vera’s special Victory Wings in the locker room after wins. If the rest of the season goes like the start, they’ll be having a lot of those chicken wings because the team plays four of its next six games at home.
"We’ve got a couple of home games, so we’ll just go the normal course of events at home," he said. "I think it’s 300 miles to the closest In-N-Out here."
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